Democracy in the Crosshairs: Guns at Town Halls

Assault rifles haven’t replaced placards yet outside presidential townhalls on healthcare reform, but their emergence serves as another disturbing symbol of where political discourse is heading. The ratcheting up from mere words to weapons not only poses an immediate risk. It also sends an irresponsible message that may be picked by some violent extremists, like the weapon obsessed neo-Nazi killer of three Pittsburgh cops, as an invitation to go to the next level. The intense,
and often justifiable, anger and confusion that many mainstream Americans feel as they face a dizzying array of government proposals on a spectrum of issues has provided an opportunity for extremists who hate the government to establish a beachhead in the mainstream.

The real backstory here is not the merits of competing versions of healthcare reform, but rather a nasty attempt to undermine our democracy by debasing debate and the very legitimacy of the government’s leadership itself. At no time in recent history have false conspiracy theories and secessionist rhetoric born in the world of white nationalists and anti-government extremists held such sway in the mainstream. For some, the healthcare debate is not about healthcare reform at all. It is
not simply a discussion about the competing, costly and downright confusing proposed policy options. Rather, it’s the opening salvo in a wider brewing cosmic conflict against an alien black Muslim socialist president intent on using the tyrannical power of the government to strip real Americans of their fundamental rights and cultural heritage. And a growing number of militias and record number of hate groups are heeding that call as domestic anti-government and racist extremism has reasserted itself as the top domestic terrorist threat according to federal law enforcement.

As Former Klansman David Duke declared last November:

“[O]bama is a signal flag that European Americans have lost control over the government of the nation they founded, a nation that when it was at its best was [sic] the a pinnacle of the dreams of Western man…. [Obama is] symbolic of that transfer of the control of America from White to anti-White.”

For teetering, but non-racist gun rights advocates like Gun Owners of America’s Director of Federal Affairs John Velleco the rights battle is already underway. He vigorously favors assault weapons, as well as civilians bearing loaded guns on commercial airplanes and at front rows of presidential town halls. For those like him, the Second Amendment is a completely rigid keystone right that supports all others -- once it is slightly eroded, the loss of other rights will soon follow. As he said in an often bizarre debate with Chris Matthews and me this Wednesday on MSNBC’s Hardball, “We’re tired of the government trying to take our rights away, it’s not just about health care when we go to these town hall meetings, its a bigger issue….That the government wants to take away a lot of our freedoms and the Second Amendment is high on the list.” Not surprisingly, Velleco also demurred repeatedly when asked whether he thought Obama was a “legitimate American” born in the United States.

For the true white nationalists and their allies, it’s even worse; the slaves have already taken over the plantation, and are now coming for your guns. And you don’t just arm yourselves with signs in this war -- you bring semi-automatic AR-15s. “It is time to water the tree of liberty” proclaimed a sign held up by one armed town hall gun toter. It’s a variation of a 1787 Jeffersonian quote about deposing illegitimate governments by force: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” More recently, it was
also on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s tee shirt on the day he murdered 168 Americans at the Murrah Federal Building in April 1995. For these folks Obama’s health plan isn’t flawed because it may limit options or cost too much, it’s flawed because the officials behind it are part of an anti-American fifth column conspiracy.

Gun Owners of America has for years played a pivotal role at the intersection where healthy mainstream traditional conservative skepticism erodes into anti-democratic white nationalism. GOA is not your typical pro-Gun outfit-it recently accused the Obama administration of  threatening to ban gun clubs, ammo reloading, BB guns, and possibly even toys. GOA executive director and founder Larry Pratt also founded English First, U.S. Border Control and the Committee to Protect the Family. He was a key player in the formation of the militia movement in the 1990s.  Pratt was one of only a couple of non-racist speakers who appeared at an important anti-government three day conference convened by neo-Nazis and Christian Identity adherents in Estes Park, Colorado in October, 1992.  The gathering is viewed as the starting point of the militia movement. Christian Identity is the racist religion of white supremacy that in its most traditional form promotes a segregated white homeland and a belief that the Jews are Satanic and blacks subhuman

Louis Beam, a former Klansman and Aryan Nations leader, who promotes the concept of leaderless violent resistance against the government and other enemies of whites issued a stark warning there, not to bigots, but to the mainstream:

 “When they come for you, the federals will not ask if you are a constitutionalist, a Baptist, Church Of Christ, Identity Covenant believer, [or] fundamentalist…Those who wear badges, black boots, and carry automatic weapons and kick in doors already know all they need to know about you. You are enemies of the state.” 

Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler offered a Hitler salute while proclaiming himself to be a “100% bigot.” Another sought after speaker who shared the stage was none other than GOA founder Larry Pratt. He railed, on gun rights grounds, against the 14th Amendment, which in 1868 guaranteed former slaves citizenship and equal protection of the laws. Using the 1992 Los Angeles riots as ammo, he vigorously encouraged the formation of armed unregulated civilian militias. After his Estes Park hijinks were exposed in the Washington Post he quickly resigned as the
national campaign co-chair of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential bid.

Salvos by extremists to undermine the legitimacy of our presidents by injecting twisted conspiracies into the mix didn’t start with President Obama’s death panels, counterfeit birth certificate, or stealth attempt to strip all civilians of guns in their homes. John Kennedy would secretly answer to the Pope. Bush 41’s “New World Order” was an attempt by Jews, the Illuminati or Freemasons to enslave Americans under a nefarious, and multiethnic “one world government.” The Klan promoted rumors that President Clinton was controlled by Jews and fathered an out-of-wedlock African-American child. And don’t forget those “truthers” who maintain that George W. Bush committed 9/11.

The fact is that despite the fear and rancor, the best weapons conservatives, and liberals, for that matter, still have at their disposal is the judgment to repudiate deceptive hatemongers and the power of thoughtful persuasion our democratic system affords.  Despite recent political setbacks, conservatives have peacefully scored some impressive, yet quiet victories within the political process, so loathed by extremists. This spring a majority of Americans surveyed called themselves pro-life and last year the Supreme Court, in an opinion by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia upheld a constitutional individual right to private gun ownership. This of course doesn’t matter to folks whose divide is not over issues, but over the legitimacy of our government itself. 

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